President Obama entered the White House determined to renew diplomacy with Iran. During his campaign, he said he would meet the leaders of Iran "without preconditions."
In his inaugural address he said, "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
Obama was sincere, but his outreach was doomed before it began. The problem was never American goodwill but rather how Iran's leaders understand diplomacy.
American diplomacy is based on the assumption that international counterparts operate by common rules.
The Western notion of diplomacy, however, is a relatively recent concept, one that evolved during the Enlightenment and coalesced into a common understanding only in the nineteenth century.
To assume that twenty-first century adversaries, be they in Tehran, Pyongyang, or Beijing, accept a value system rooted in Western culture is naive.
The match-up between Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Obama is not a battle between equals, but rather a historical grudge match between Nizam al-Mulk, the eleventh century Persian Machiavelli, and Neville Chamberlain or Jimmy Carter.
In that game, the White House will always lose, especially when if it refuses to recognize the rules by which Iran plays.
The cultural chasm between American and Iranian diplomats predates the 1979 hostage crisis.
Less than three months before radical students seized the U.S. embassy, Bruce Laingen, the American chargé d'affaires in Tehran, described the Iranian approach to negotiations to the State Department. "Perhaps the single dominant aspect of the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism," he wrote in a cable, adding, "The practical effect of it is an almost total Persian preoccupation with self and leaves little room for understanding points of view other than one's own." "One should never assume that his side of the issue will be recognized," he concluded.
That, after 32 years, no Iranian official has apologized for seizing the U.S. embassy underscores Laingen's insight and shows the Iranian regime's complete rejection of the rules of diplomacy. Iranians have grievances too—the 1953 coup against Iran's Soviet-leaning premier, for example—but for this successive administrations have apologized.
The Islamic Republic's embrace of terrorism also underscores the cultural gap. Tehran refuses the terrorist label, only because it believes wanton murder of civilians acceptable. Export of revolution is enshrined in the Islamic Republic's constitution and the Iranian government has been so bold as to include a line-item for "resistance" in its budget.
During the last administration, critics chastised the President Bush for eschewing realism, the idea that immediate national interest should trump morality in decision making. Obama may believe he embraced realism, but he fails to recognize it in his adversaries: Iranian authorities make no secret that their primary national interest lays in becoming a nuclear power.
Here, again, American strategy is naïve: Obama may, like Bill Clinton before him, believe that he can exploit Iranian factional disputes to his advantage but he ignores that reformists and hardliners both seek a nuclear Iran. Indeed, the biggest dispute between the two poles on the Iranian political spectrum is not whether or not to go nuclear, but rather who should get credit for the achievement.
When Ahmadinejad announces nuclear breakthroughs, as he did on Wednesday, he seeks glory for himself, but reformists say they deserve credit.
In June 2008, for example, Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, the spokesman for former president Mohammad Khatami, suggested Khatami's much-lauded "Dialogue of Civilizations" was merely a tactic to distract the West from Iran's nuclear progress. Former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani seconded the notion in October 2011, crediting his own insincere diplomacy for enabling Iran to create a nuclear fait accompli.
While many American officials still cling to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate's controversial assertion that Iran ceased working on a nuclear weapon in 2003, they ignore the fact that it was during the reformist era that Iran laid the backbone of its program.
Absent sincerity, diplomacy is less a system for problem solving than it is an asymmetric warfare strategy.
Only twice has the Islamic Republic reversed course on its revolutionary goals: First, Ayatollah Khomeini released American hostages, not because of Carter's diplomacy but rather because Iraq's 1980 invasion made the price of Iran's isolation too great to bear.
Then, only after a half million Iranians died, did Khomeini agreed to abandon the Iran-Iraq war short of his goal of ousting Saddam Hussein, likening the decision to drinking a chalice of poison.
Iranians often quip that they play chess while the Americans play checkers. They are wrong. By ignoring the Iranian game, Obama might as well be playing solitaire.
Tehran will feign pragmatism only when the cost of its goals—nuclear acquisition and revolutionary expansion—grow too costly. Only by raising exponentially the cost to Iran of its nuclear defiance can Obama hope to rein in Iranian ambitions.